New mining regs slip into rulebooks

Revised BLM regulations punch a hole in the 1872 Mining Law

 

For Alan Septoff, Jan. 20 was more than President George W. Bush's inauguration day. It was the day he hoped to see years of hard work pay off.

Over the past decade, Septoff and his colleagues at the Washington D.C.-based Mineral Policy Center have been pushing for reform of federal hard-rock mining law. The Center found a sympathetic ear in former Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt, but they were up against one of the Old West's sacred cows - the 1872 General Mining Act, which says that mining is the "highest and best use" of federal lands.

During Babbitt's first four years, reformers hoping to repeal the law ran squarely into the opposition of nine Western governors and powerful Western senators.

After all attempts at legislative reform failed, Babbitt took a new tack. Starting in 1997, he launched an effort to strengthen the Bureau of Land Management's one administrative tool for regulating mining - the 3809 regulations. The vague rules, first created in 1981, directed the Interior secretary to protect public lands from "unnecessary and undue degradation" from mining.

In 1998, after another storm from the Western Governor's Association and the mining industry, Congress stalled this regulatory reform as well. Babbitt was finally able to squeeze his new rules into the Federal Register last fall, but the mining industry filed an 11th-hour lawsuit aimed at holding off the implementation of the rules until Bush could enter office.

A judge threw out the lawsuit, and in the final hours of the Clinton presidency, the BLM's new hard-rock mining policy slipped into the rulebooks. Although the new regulations don't have the glossy appeal of Clinton's roadless initiative or Babbitt's national monuments, they are no small victory for mining reformers and environmentalists. The revised rules "are perhaps one of the most significant new regulations issued by the Clinton administration," says Septoff. "This is a huge deal."

BLM gets veto power

The new 3809 regulations fall short of what reformers wanted - namely a new law that would force mining companies to pay the federal government a cut of their profits from mining on public land.

But they will make mining companies pay up, requiring bonds to cover clean-up costs. Septoff says the new bond rules will prevent future taxpayer bailouts at mines like Zortman-Landusky gold mine in Montana (HCN, 4/13/98: The Wayward West), and the Summitville gold mine in southern Colorado (HCN, 1/19/98: Summitville: an expensive lesson).

"Taxpayers are currently on the hook for anywhere from $32 billion to $72 billion in abandoned mine cleanup costs," says Septoff. "These new regulations ensure that these mining companies actually pay to clean up their mine up front."

Along with new rules for bonding, the revised regulations require the BLM, or state agencies, to enforce performance standards that protect water quality and environmentally sensitive areas.

Perhaps most significantly, the new 3809 regulations give the BLM discretion to deny mining proposals. Because of the "best use" clause, BLM managers have had a tough time turning down mine proposals, even if the mine would mar views of a national park or threaten a blue-ribbon trout stream. Now, the BLM can decide that protecting wildlife habitat or scenic beauty outweighs the benefits of mining.

Nevada will fight

Opposition to the reform is certainly not over. In Nevada, where hard-rock mining is the second-largest industry in the state, the attorney general's office has already filed a lawsuit challenging the BLM's authority to implement the new rules.

"What we're trying to do here, is make sure that the state's voice is heard before important decisions about mining are made," says Wayne Howle, Nevada's assistant attorney general. "The production will decline in the range between $117 (million) and $351 million a year. That's pretty substantial," he says. "The number of jobs lost will be anywhere between 1,070 and 3,220. So there's no question that there will be adverse effects to the state's economy."

If Nevada's lawsuit, and two others like it, fail, miners and some politicians in other states hope the Bush administration will soften impacts of the rules.

"There's a new secretary of the Interior, and there are those who say she's going to be an advocate for mining," says David Cherry, spokesman for Sen. Harry Reid, D-Nevada. "So a lot of people are taking a wait-and-see attitude to see how the mining rules pan out."

As for mining reformers, they'll be keeping a close eye on Interior Secretary Gale Norton and how she handles the first meaningful changes in hard-rock mining rules since 1981.

"It's one of the best regulatory changes on mining that has occurred in the last two decades," says Nevada mining expert Glenn Miller. "But the burden is still going to be on the people on the ground ... to enforce the new regulations."

Ali Macalady is production assistant for Radio High Country News.

You can contact ...

  • Alan Septoff, Mineral Policy Center, 202/887-1872;
  • Karen Batra, National Mining Association, 202/463-2651;
  • Wayne Howle, Nevada Attorney General's Office, 775/684-1227.
High Country News Classifieds
  • COPPER STAIN: ASARCO'S LEGACY IN EL PASO
    Tales from scores of ex-employees unearth the human costs of an economy that runs on copper.
  • FEATURES DIRECTOR - HIGH COUNTRY NEWS
    High Country News, an award-winning news organization covering the communities and environment of the Western United States, seeks a Features Director to join our editorial...
  • GENERAL MANAGER
    The Board of UYWCD seeks a new GM to manage operations & to implement our robust strategic plan. Details at www.upperyampawater.com. EOE
  • IN TUCSON, FOR SALE: A BEAUTIFUL, CLASSIC MID-CENTURY MODERN HOME
    designed by architect David Swanson in 1966. Located a block from Saguaro National Forest, yet minutes to Downtown and the UofA campus, 3706 sqft, 6...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    The Friends of the San Juans is seeking a new leader guide our efforts to protect and restore the San Juan Islands and the Salish...
  • 80 ACRES
    straddles North Platte Fishery, Wyoming. Legal access 2 miles off 1-80. Call 720-440-7633.
  • DIRECTOR OF PRODUCT AND MARKETING
    High Country News seeks a Director of Product and Marketing to join our senior team during an exciting chapter of innovation and growth. This individual...
  • OWN A THRIVING MOUNTAIN GUIDE SERVICE.
    Eastern Sierra guide service for sale to person with vision & expertise to take it onwards. Since 1995 with USFS & NPS permits. Ideal for...
  • IMPROVED LOT
    Private road, hillside, views. Well, pad, septic, 99 sq.ft. hut. Dryland permaculture orchard. Wildlife. San Diego--long growing season
  • UNIQUE INVESTMENT OPPORTUNITY
    Profitable off-the-grid business located 2 miles from Glacier National Park. Owner has 6 years operating experience. Seeking investor or partner for business expansion and enhancement....
  • REMOTE SITKA ALASKA FLOAT HOUSE VACATION RENTAL
    Vacation rental located in calm protected waters 8 miles from Sitka, AK via boat with opportunities to fish and view wildlife. Skiff rental also available.
  • EXPERT LAND STEWART
    Available for site conservator, property manager. View resume at http://skills.ojadigital.net.
  • CONSERVATIONIST? IRRIGABLE LAND?
    Stellar seed-saving NGO is available to serious partner. Package must include financial support. Details: http://seeds.ojaidigital.net.
  • CANYONLANDS FIELD INSTITUTE
    Colorado Plateau Natural & Human History Field Seminars. Lodge, river, hiking options. Small groups, guest experts.
  • WESTERN NATIVE SEED
    Specializing in native seeds and seed mixes for western states.
  • CHUCK BURR'S CULTUREQUAKE.COM BLOG
    Change will happen when we see a new way of living. Thinking to save the world.
  • COMING TO TUCSON?
    Popular vacation house, furnished, 2 bed/1 bath, yard, dog-friendly. Lee at [email protected] or 520-791-9246.
  • OJO CALIENTE COMMERCIAL VENTURE
    Outstanding location near the world famous Ojo Caliente Mineral Spring Resort. Classic adobe Mercantile complete w/living quarters, separate 6 unit B&B, metal building and spacious...